Remote work is here to stay, but we need a middle ground
TL;DR: It’s not remote vs. in-office. It’s hybrid. Remote / hybrid work arrangements depend mostly on company or team culture, tooling, and options to come into the office on occasion.
I’ve worked remotely for the past ten years. It’s been normal for me for quite a while. But looking back, it did take some time to personally get into a groove. As I changed employers and became an entrepreneur, I would have to essentially start over again to help normalize a remote / hybrid culture depending on the state of the team and company.
After months of being in a pandemic, an us vs. them mentality has taken over the remote vs. in-office debate and it is becoming exhausting. I get it. We’re binary-minded. Left vs. Right, Black vs. White. But like most things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle and you will not please everyone.
Remote work is here to stay. We have the tools and technology. Now it’s all about balance and cultivating a culture that can benefit most, if not everyone regardless of where they stand.
Benefits of remote work
Reduced spend on office rent is the most cited example. Reduction of physical office materials such as chairs, paper, pens, printers.
Less time wasted in traffic or commute
I remember going to see a show in NYC and being on a subway at 10 PM. There were people still dressed in suits, clearly exhausted and on their way back home — only to get a few hours sleep and start over again the next day. If they had families, they probably barely saw each other.
Increased talent pool
You can hire from anywhere. There’s no added overhead of trying to convince someone to move to your location.
Mental, emotional, abstract
Flexibility, autonomy, quality vs. quantity. These are the ones that most managers and executives find difficult to fully grasp. If you’re a micromanager, you probably hate remote work. If you view people as mere inputs into a large machine, you probably hate remote work. If there is no culture of trust, you probably hate remote work.
Downsides of remote work
You end up working more
It’s difficult to know when work ends. There’s no clear delineation to mark the end of the day like leaving the office. In order to successfully work remotely, you have to first understand that work becomes part of life. Someone once told me a great analogy with farmers. They get up at 4 AM because they have work that they must do at the moment. It’s who they are. It’s part of their life. They chose it and it’s part of their identity. To succeed with remote work, you have to forget the “work/life balance” argument, which tries to completely separate work from not-work. It’s just not possible in many industries. We get home and we think about work. It’s where we spend most of our waking hours. For most of us, the hard part is ensuring that it doesn’t take over your life.
It gets lonely
Being in the office is about vibe and energy. A video conference call does not provide these things. They’re just faces on a screen and our minds realize this inherently. It turns out that there’s some actual science behind Zoom Fatigue.
Cultural adjustment could take a while
And by a while I mean months to years depending on the current company culture. Maybe the company doesn’t have the right technology and they need to go out and seek them and train their people. Maybe the company culture is not conducive to remote work. It could even be a single person in the company that is preventing any sort of adjustment to allow for remote work. It just takes time to get used to and you have to commit.
Hybrid model + options
Luckily, we have the technology and tools to establish a middle ground. I realize that options right now are a bit limited, but here are some ideas that you can establish for your people:
An office space with certain amenities like a conference room, breakout rooms, common area, and private workstations. Employees use an online booking system to book these rooms on their choice of day and time. This is a great option for teams who want to meet in person on occasion. The office becomes another resource for your employees.
Quarterly travel for employees in other geographies
I worked for a company in the west coast while I lived in the east coast. I was lucky enough for them to be flexible about when I chose to travel. I personally committed to try and visit their office once per quarter and stay for 3–5 days. I’d plan my meetings a week or two ahead of time and coordinate with the office manager so that when I arrived, I was ready to go and interact with my team. Being in person, especially when working on focused projects, is incredibly energizing. Being with my team for just a few days helped solidify our online remote experiences thereafter. The energy transferred to our remote interactions.
Companies like Articulate were founded on a fully remote culture. Before the pandemic, they ran annual retreats where employees would come together in person to build camaraderie. In pandemic-life, companies are hosting Virtual Retreats. Here are some ideas on how to run them for your team.
Things that should remain constant
Quality vs. Quantity
I personally don’t think there is much to debate about this. We should all strive for quality over quantity. Work that may require 20 hours to complete on paper could be achieved in less time by a team or individual with more skills, motivation, and experience. We should measure outcomes, not the number of hours that our team is in the office. This requires trust and clear communication about goals and desired results. That’s the hard part where most leaders and teams get held up.
Taking a holistic approach to employee well-being is beneficial for both sides. The stresses of life outside of work — family, personal issues — can really carry over into work. If we give our people the flexibility that they need to care for themselves and their loved ones, you’ll get productive and happy team members in return. They can focus better. They won’t be as bogged down by other stresses. If you are a people manager, remember that you are managing human beings, not just their work. You have to care about their entire being — relationships, personal concerns, etc. because if you don’t, then their work suffers.
Remember that not all industries have the ability to offer remote work options — construction, public utilities, and restaurants to name a few. But for those who can, this is the future of work. It’s about people, a cultural shift and providing the right tools and resources to help facilitate this future.